On Trash

By Galen Laserson

Visitors returning from emerging markets commonly remark on two problems that plague developing cities: traffic and trash. Admittedly, visitors likely purchase bottled water and do not stay long enough to have to navigate power outages or a local transit system. More viscerally, traffic and trash are both highly visible and unpleasantly familiar enough that there is nothing “charming” or “local” about experiencing them and nothing particularly exciting about fixing them. Saravana’s post (“Roads – Simple, Mundane and Absolutely Vital”) teases out the significance of roads to economic development in West Africa, a concept we have added to in our class discussions about how to capture the lost productivity resulting from traffic. Accordingly, I would like to leave traffic aside for the moment and focus on trash.

At its core, trash is waste – the enemy of sustainability.

Trash breeds illness and disease and, left alone, begets more trash. Developed countries have introduced plastic but no corresponding solution for how to remove it[1]. In Ghana, waste from plastic packaging amounts to over 22,000 tons per year[2], enough to support Trashy Bags, an NGO that makes handbags entirely of trash. Accra has 16 trash collection zones serviced by private contractors. 20% of the population pays to receive weekly trash collection in high-income, low-density neighborhoods. These waste management companies are supposed to empty central collection containers for the remaining 80% of the population, however, these collections are less profitable and service is unreliable. Pay-as-you dump initiatives have resulted in residents dumping trash in illegal sites.[3]

Accra, Ghana, January 2012 (photos by author)

Rwanda is far poorer than Ghana[4], though you wouldn’t guess it from the streets of Kigali. The Government of Rwanda’s approach to trash is to create less of it. The country has banned the use of plastic bags. In addition, on the last Saturday morning of every month, all citizens participate in community service (umuganda), which includes cleaning streets.

Kigali, Rwanda, July 2012

Easy enough, one might argue, in a country with a strong centralized government and a population of 10 million (similar arguments have been made about Singapore’s cleanliness). The culture of umuganda may not be replicable in, say, the U.S. In the era of FEED bags, Whole Foods, and composting (see Clementine’s post), however, banning plastic bags doesn’t seem like such a stretch.

Ghana reminds us that sustainable cities need proper incentives and systems for processing trash, Rwanda that we need to figure out ways to create less of it. It is Phu My Hung that offers a ray of optimism: “People come here from the city and they behave differently,” says Gayle Tsien, “They would think twice before throwing garbage on the ground.” As trash begets trash, so does cleanliness.

[1] In some instances, developed countries even export their own e-waste (computers, radios) to dumping grounds in Ghana.


2 http://www.trashybags.org/background.htm

3 Ian A. Thompson, “Domestic Waste Management Strategies in Accra, Ghana and Other Urban Cities

in Tropical Developing Nations.” http://www.cwru.edu/med/epidbio/mphp439/Waste_Mgmt_Accra.pdf

4 Ghana’s estimated per capita PPP GDP ($3,300) for 2012 is 2.4x that of Rwanda ($1,400). https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/rankorder/2004rank.html

6 thoughts on “On Trash

  1. Pingback: Most Commented through Friday, March 8th | Sustainable Cities: Urbanization, Infrastructure, and Finance

  2. Galen – thanks for such an interesting post. It’s interesting to compare the difference in waste reduction between developed and emerging nations, and both sides could learn a lot from the other. While many nations have sophisticated waste clearance systems, which means many of us are hardly ever bothered by the smell of trash, this “out of sight, out of mind” mentality may mean we also create a tremendous amount of unnecessary waste. The UN sums it up well when they say “[nowhere in waste management] are the differences between the industrialized countries and the developing countries so apparent as in waste reduction and materials recovery. Rising overall living standards and the advent of mass production have reduced markets for many used materials and goods in the affluent countries whereas, in most of the developing world, traditional labor-intensive practices of repair, reuse, waste trading, and recycling have endured.” In other words, it may be not be as pleasant have so much waste present in developing countries, but it does heighten the chance for reuse.

  3. Galen, in an age where trash has become an exportable good and where landfills are rapidly filling up, you raise some excellent points about the need for smart incentives. We examined in class how government can leverage non-financial incentives to influence businesses and developers. A few ideas come to mind around incentives to encourage the private sector:

    For waste management companies: set targets to reduce trash diverted to landfills – either through strict quotas or through taxing excessive amounts, gradually implemented over time to reduce cost burdens. Shift a proportion of new landfill creation costs onto companies to provide further incentive to more effectively divert landfill intake. Encourage construction of single stream recycling centers through tax-free bonds and other financial incentives.

    For developers: adjust building codes to require new buildings to feature side-by-side trash and recycling chutes. In public areas, place recycling receptacles with clearly distinguishable openings (i.e. circular for bottles, rectangular for paper) to improve access and build awareness. Construct new residential units with built-in spaces for recycling and composting bins alongside trash cans in high-traffic areas like kitchens.

    For companies: ensure corporate cleaning companies offer recycling packages in their routine waste collection services. Provide a tax rebate for companies that opt for advanced recycling schemes. Corporate office buildings produce a significant proportion of total landfill waste as well as many recyclable products, so could serve as an ideal starting point to boost recycling efforts.

    For consumers: create a single stream recycling program for electronics to allow any and all gadgets to be collected together for recycling – mobile phones, laptops, batteries, etc. Promote awareness or financially subsidize production and purchases of “cradle-to-cradle” recyclable goods via reduced tax rates or rebates.

    By improving accessibility, awareness, and incentives, governments can compel the private sector to greatly boost recycling efforts and decrease landfill use.

  4. By John Macomber

    This observation ties into the post by Clementine about composting: https://sustainablecitiesfinance.wordpress.com/2013/02/14/saving-money-space-and-clean-air-the-case-for-compulsory-composting-in-sustainable-cities/

    By coincidence, I’m teach two cases about waste and trash this afternoon (March 5) in the course, “Innovation in Business, Energy, and Environment.” One of them is specifically about approaches to Municipal Solid Waste (MSW) in Beijing. “Sound Group China: Urban Waste Entrepreneurs.”

    The city of Bangalore is also almost choked with respect to no place to put the garbage. In January the New York Times ran a long piece entitled, “India’s Plague, Trash, Drowns Bangalore, its Garden City.”

    Finally, in the IBEE course blog, Maive Rute wrote: “Is Waste the New Goldmine?” [I don’t know about goldmine but it certainly is choking us]. http://innovbusenergyenviro.wordpress.com/2013/02/27/is-waste-the-new-goldmine/

    • By John Macomber

      A student wrote:

      Really intrigued by the post on waste being the new goldmine. I came across an article yesterday (http://world.time.com/2013/02/12/at-the-largest-gathering-of-humanity-who-takes-out-the-trash/) that made a similar observation about the Khumb Mela: “Everyone hates the garbage around us,” says Anil Srivastava, a manager at AWP working the night shift after starting the day with a predawn dip in the Ganges. “They don’t understand that it’s also money.”

      I was six when New York had a five day garbage strike (http://www.nytimes.com/1990/12/13/nyregion/rising-piles-of-garbage-test-business-owners-wits.html?src=pm) and it was an experience that stuck with me!

      • Thank you Galen for your interesting post. Though I have traveled many times to developing countries, including visiting family in India since I was child, the presence of trash on the street never fails to upset me. I remember when I visited my cousin I asked why he didn’t just pick up the litter and he said that was the easy part – the hard part was finding a way to stop people from littering in the first place. Incentives matter.

        It is interesting to take a look at the entrepreneurial spirit in face of such a large trash challenge. Here in the US we see people pushing grocery carts of bottles, taking them to recycling centers to collect the five cent deposit. When I was a child, we’d go on bottle drives in our neighborhood to collect bottles to raise money as well. According to the Bottle Bill Resource guide, something as simple as this deposit has been shown to be more effective than a litter tax and “showed reductions in beverage container litter ranging from 69% to 84%, and reductions in total litter ranging from 30% to 65%.” (http://www.bottlebill.org/about/benefits/litter.htm)

        Now, moving to developing countries, there is an entire industry of ragpickers who make a living from sorting garbage in enormous dumps in India. While there are clearly problems, such as exposure to toxins and child labor, there have been movements to form collectives. Entrepreneurial ideas and government initiatives in waste management need to work with ragpickers to avoid taking away the sole source of income for many families and jeopardizing the success of their projects. Dealing with trash and cleaning up the litter on the streets is very possible because of the value that remains in discarded material. The stumbling block comes in how to do business in the existing system and create a sustainable enterprise.

Comments are closed.